A substantial mystery! What invisible agency had given this hard fact its force? A gleeful chuckle followed by a discordant crow dissipated doubt-the stone had been dislodged by an industrious scrub fowl raking on the brink of the ravine. A sense of fellowship with the harsh-voiced bird manifested itself. A transient sensation of relief—I had not been conscious of the least mental depression—followed the thought that in and about the ravine there were other living things besides myself and snakes. The death adder, the head of which I had fatally bruised just now, had been the only sign of life, and it had been as dull-coloured and almost as inert as the rock on which it lay—an emblem of death at home in this almost lifeless seclusion. Dwelling with amusement on Wylo's suggested precautions, I bore the branch before me as I climbed a steep face, the tomahawk in my belt, intent for the time being, and as cautious and suspicious as a black boy. On the lip of what seemed to be a hollow a fig-tree grew, the naked, interlacing roots of which made the final stages of the ascent easy and safe. Briskly hauling myself up, I stepped over the edge of the depression, and the solid rock lapsed and slid underfoot.
In a flash the head of a python arose, and with gaping jaws struck as the branch fell from my hand.' In a moment I had whipped the tomahawk from my belt and slashed at the body of the snake squirming at my feet, as, baffled for a moment by the falling branch, it gathered itself for a second attack.
Few of the enemies of man are more easily disabled than a snake. Always zealous in obedience to the Biblical law, it is honest to confess to a decided preference for elbow-room when engaged in its actual fulfilment. This was a fight with man's first enemy in close and awkward quarters—a precipice behind, walls of rock in front and at either hand. Three times my length, strong enough to constrict to death a giant, wily enough to seek the cover of the matted roots of the tree, several points were in favour of the snake. My first wild haphazard stroke, which had merely scored its flesh, seemed to have roused its vindictiveness. Once in those coils, the chances of victory would be remote indeed.
Part of the python's still gliding length was within reach, while (the forepart resting on a branch) the head was but slightly higher than mine, though beyond the radius of the tomahawk.
The bulging head drew slowly back, as the snake released sufficient of its length to encompass me. The yellow, blinkless eyes, with knife-edge pupils, flashed with the hate of agelong feud as I edged against the wall. My arm was free. The lust of battle tightened every nerve. Neither flashing eyes nor strangulating length made for fear. The hitherto all-conquering snake, lord and master of the ravine, bade defiance, joining issue with the craft of its kind.
Slowly the pendant portion increased as the subtle beast seemed to concentrate all its energies on one triumphant, invincible effort.
Anticipating the fateful instant, I slashed with all my force at the portion of the body within reach, ducking simultaneously. Shooting over me, the head of the enemy struck the rock with brain-bemuddling impact. For once the serpent had been foiled. With jaws awry, the head swung limply, like a ceasing pendulum. One blow with the back of the tomahawk established the right of man to wander at will among the rough and secret places of the mountain.
Still did the swaying reptile cling with a single coil round the figtree's branch, while chill blood dripped and splashed among the intertwined and snake-like roots. A sudden tug brought the body down a squirming mass. With rough-shod heel, I fulfilled the letter of the law, bruising the battered head, and then were revealed the bosses by which, with the tail, the snake had sustained its dead weight.
Was this the "debil-debil" which had scared so many from the quest—a python which any man might kill in the open without running any risk, and which a black boy, with time on his hands, would joy to eat? Yet I own that I was somewhat flustered, and not a little tired and bruised and angry, because such an impediment had had to be cleared from the track. Was there not cause for indignation? Why should a gormandising serpent, full to repletion, lie slothfully across a highway open to all, to the checking of a holiday-making mortal in lawful pursuit of a demon-protected crystal? Let me once more vindictively stamp on its head.
But which way? Here was a dead and unscalable wall to right and left and in front, and all in deep shadow. I estimated that another one hundred feet would take me to the mountain-top, whence it would be possible to survey the scene in relation to the bejewelled rock. Descent was the only practicable preliminary towards further ascent. Utilising the interlacing roots of the fig-tree, the way down was easy enough, and, choosing the left wall of the ravine, I began a perilous climb out of gloom into sunshine, upon a conglomeration of immense granite boulders, over which the Sentinel cast a shadow. This shadow indicated that the ascent had occupied at least three hours, and in my self-complacency I had calculated to beard the "debil-debil" in his den, dislodge the crystal, and be back at the camp gloating over the escapade to open-eyed Wylo in less time.
Though a night was to be spent in the haunt of the evil spirit, yet would I proceed. I found not one but many "oo-nang-mugils," lowering caves and clefts in which scores of fearsome "debil-debils" might lurk, but which, as far as a vigilant mortal could detect, were given over to innocent bats and those sun-loving swiftlets which rear their young in nests adherent to rocks in dusky places.
Over and beneath boulders, squirming through bolt-holes and up flue-like openings, bruised and with bleeding hands, at last the top was reached, harsh with granite, and there to the right, on a gigantic splintered boulder which seemed to block the end of the ravine and to peer down into the blue bay below, was the crystal glinting in sunshine. It was not more than fifty yards away, and, easeful of mind, I sat down to munch a piece of damper. Close by a patch of vivid green moss indicated the existence of moisture and the further possibility of water. Sure enough, twenty yards down spongy moss and fern spread over a lip of rocks, and from dangling tufts and drooping fronds water dripped in melodious splashes into a shallow depression, and overflowed in a fan-shaped film. The facets and apex of the crystal reflected harsh brightness as unsullied as the moss-filtered, unstable drips which gathered second by second and were gone. How like those drips, how unlike the scarred, time-chastened rock, that steadfast slip of light which since the dawn of creation had flashed messages across the unresponsive sea.
From a ledge in which ferns and orchids grew in careless profusion—bird's-nest fern and polypodium and white-flowering orchid—the crystal might be reached by a little manoeuvring. But why hurry? Every minor crevice was embossed with spongy moss, from which sprang modest little flowers, a flower of mountaintops alone, lacking a familiar name, but which in its dainty form and rich mauve is none the less precious. While all the rest of the way had been barren or gloomy, here was brave sunshine and space, a jewel-like crystal, and moss and ferns and flowers, and calm and cool serenity which' bespoke remoteness from the "debil-debil" and all his works, and from the noisy cave of the winds. Magic there was in plenty-the air tingled with it—that exhilarating, mind-expanding silence of mountain-tops which is the most thrilling magic of all.
Leisurely glances at the mass of granite from which the crystal shone showed that from the ferny ledge it would be beyond reach, and that unless care was exercised in the dislodgment it might fall among a confusion of boulders far below and be lost for ever. My plan was of to build a buttress of loose stone on which to stand to tap it with the tomahawk. Like a miniature railway cutting, the ledge ran out on the face of the rock, so that standing upon it one looked down into the ravine; but it was broad enough to afford safe and even convenient footing.
As a final preliminary to the beginning of operations, I clambered up on to the ledge. Ferns grew among decaying vegetable matter in masses difficult to push through. Polypodiums with brown, oak-leaf like, infantile fronds clung tightly to the rocks with furry fingers, and the birds'-nests were big enough to conceal a man. A broad and comfortable path it was, leading directly under the crystal, and with haste and confidence I pushed along, smiling inwardly at "shynynge" fortune, to be in another moment dismayed by her "brutilness." The earth sank under me. I shot into an acute fissure with ferns and dust piled overhead!
Gasping and coughing, I cleared away the smothering rubbish, to find myself a fixture—jambed fast between walls of granite. Deceptive ferns had masked the crevice. I had walked along a treacherous track until at a weak spot it had given way as the gallows' trap beneath the feet of a murderer.
Light came from ahead, too. There the lancehead-shaped fissure opened on the ravine, whence it was flushed with cool air.
Was ever mortal in such a plight? A drop of eight from the spacious top of the mountain had lodged me a prisoner in the narrowest of cells. Dismayed but not despairing, I struggled frantically, working with shoulder and arms against the walls of granite. The right foot was firmly fixed, while a sensation of easiness was perceptible with regard to the left. Gently yet firmly, and fearful lest the slight grain of comfort might be fraudulent, I felt the weight of my body on the left foot, while scrutinising in detail the horrible trap into which the crystal bait had lured me.
There, a few feet below and further towards the ravine, was the skull of a human being, and still further down, where space was more confined, other bones were fixtures. There was a weird fascination about the skull, for at noon it would receive the benediction of the sun, and the diurnal glare into the secrets of the crevice had made a patch of white desert in an oasis of grey mould. The bones below, green and earthly with age, lay in disorder and confusion—poor fragments of the framework of man and harmless beasts, sharing a common fate.
Though fast a prisoner, nothing to live on but hope and fresh air, a sense of relief, somehow, sometime, established itself in my mind. Most of the significant features of the adventure had been faithfully foretold by Wylo—the prickly bush, the snake (archetype of the fiend), the mocking delusive stone, the stored bones of man and beast-all as he had described. He must have known more than he had voluntarily told, and assuredly would he come', when he would coo-ee, and I would shout for very joy. In the meantime would I possess my soul in patience and conserve all the strength of my lungs and power of endurance.
Just beyond the platform of ferns a splash of lovely tints illuminated the edge of the time-recording shadow—the solar spectrum produced by the prism which had beckoned from afar. Was there no escape from the wizardry of the crystal? No hope of evading comparison of its beauty and permanence with the muddy and fleeting passions of mankind? Yet how fruitless its functions—to glorify for aeons the intractable rock, and to leave it ever unstained! For once in all the centuries may not a human hand be interposed between those ineffectual flames and the surly rock? Cannot even that small measure of space be overcome?
A few inches from the tips of my outstretched fingers were the prismatic tints with which the crystal daily registered the decline of the day; but not for all my striving and all my wit could I get within reach. They were as remote as the creating sun!
The narrowness of the cleft forbade effort to reach down so that I might unlace my boots. There wan but one chance of deliverance—the coming of Wylo. And would he, agitated by superstitious awe, dare to venture into the haunt of the evil spirit when he began to realise that I, too, had fallen into the clutches he so much dreaded? Yet he must come! Of what special impiety had I been guilty that so rare and terrible a fate should have been reserved for me. He must come!
Yes. Listen! I hear his coo-ee far below! He is making his way up the ravine! And with, all my vocal power I coo-eed and yelled. But the muffling rocks stifled all noise at lips. Listen! Yes! The sound again—merely the mellow cadences of a swamp pheasant whooping among the blady grass.
Wylo dared not venture to the very door of the cave of the winds. I was alone with my fate! Could I master it?
The clean-cut shadow crept up the rock, and with it the colour splash receded. As I gazed it glittered and was gone. It would not be visible again until the next afternoon. Would I be here to watch it illuminate the rock once more? Could I contain myself until then, and perhaps after, and for day after day, until the last? And were my bones to be added to the secret horde mouldering within a few feet of the mountain-top? A few feet of nothingness—mere empty space—separated me from lost and lovely liberty, and with frantic hands I strove against the hard face of the rock, and cried aloud in agonising protest.
The old rock had disregarded similar protests and supplications, and had endured like infantile pushings! Call, and who shall listen? Push and shove and fight, and what availed it?
In my delirium I cursed and blasphemed, and "full of shriekynge was that sory place."
Darkness followed brief twilight, and up the ravine came the murmuring I had heard below—a sobbing sound which at first affrighted and then soothed, for it could be nothing but the echo of the sea on the curving beach below; and in its comfort that lulled all ineffectual clamour, and eventually to fretful but frightful sleep. Always I awoke panting with thirst, stiff and strained, and with unmanly cries of fear and pain on my lips, while the chaste stars danced across the narrow slit as I strove to stem the turbid stream of despondency.
About midnight a singular peacefulness possessed me, overcoming me in spite of myself. Feverish impatience and resistance seemed futile, and in my resignation I began to realise that to avert cramp and disablement from cold—for a chill, moist breeze from the ravine played continuously on me—some sort of exercise must be undertaken.
My left foot was certainly not so compressed as the right. Though it could not be raised, it was possible to move it ever so slightly forwards and backwards. Might it not be possible, by never-ceasing friction, to so abrade the edges of the sole of the boot that it might be reduced to such dimension as would permit it to be raised?
With all the force of my mind concentrated on the one idea, I began to work in a passion of patience. At first the play of the boot was hardly to be registered; but hour after hour of ceaseless and calculated effort not only counterbalanced mental tension and imparted some degree of warmth to my body, but so amended the shape of the boot that it began to move with some degree of freedom. The more easy the fit, the more cautious and calm I became.
No insipid monotony pervaded the remote, cold crevice. The operation was lubricated with hope. Once every heart-beat—for I kept strict tally, as further mental relaxation—my boot rubbed against the rock, and each rub wore away minute particles of leather. As time passed and the work became still easier, it became more engrossing, until calmness gave way, and every nerve thrilled with excitement, and I was convinced that I would win a joyful passage from this narrow strait by dint of the resolute continuation of the simplest of processes.
But the long night was not to end with such placid and entertaining occupation. Absorbed in it, sternly waving off all sense of weariness or despair, I was staggered and stunned by the fall, among an avalanche of fern debris, of a heavy living body on my head and shoulders—a grunting, struggling thing which kicked and scratched.
With a despairing shriek, 'all my vibrant nerves collapsed, as in the darkness and confusion I fought against infernal odds. For one appalling instant I was convinced of the reality of Wylo's most diresome fact, and did furiously believe that I was actually entrapped in the stronghold of a demon at that moment, intent upon tearing me limb from limb. The most fantastic and horrific of nightmares was actually materialised.
But at that instant a familiar odour sluiced away all mystery. This struggling thing, from the shock of which my very soul still trembled, was but a fellow-victim—a wallaby which, feeding along the ledge, had happened on the trap made by my fall.
In a flash of remorseless energy, I seized the panting body, felt for the throat, and, expelling pity from my heart, gripped until all was still. How precious and comforting it was! And once again all my powers of will and muscle were centred on a single design and action as with machine-like rhythm the boot wore itself against the rock. Disengaged from every other theme, my mind dwelt on the one steady, inevitable purpose. Rub! Rub! Rub! And I fancied I saw leathern dust fall like filings from iron down deeper into the crevice. Before dawn the boot was working freely, and with one arm on the compressed body of the wallaby to case my weight, rest was possible. The plan for the disengagement of the right foot, painfully rigid and cold, was perfect in theory. Would it hold in practice? When the left was free I would, by friction of the iron studs In the sole, wear away the laces of the engaged boot so that the foot might be withdrawn.
But physical weakness became imperious. The distraction of cramped and bruised flesh had to be withstood the while the constancy of the function was maintained. Continual comfort came from the dead body of the ill-fated wallaby—a sort of fellowship, and a feeling that with its co-operation the contest between living flesh and blood and the inert force of the mountain was not altogether one-sided. Light was certainly cheerful, but the crevice filled with mist which distilled on the rock, and a chill current of air benumbed my aching limbs.
Under the pressure of fierce determination the task persisted, until, quite unexpectedly as it seemed, the boot was free; and then, shoving and squeezing the wallaby as a cushion for my right arm, the sole of the left boot began to rasp away at the instep of the right. In such a constrained position the operation, which could be persevered in by fits and starts only, was exasperatingly slow. The sun sopped up the morning mist and boldly explored the crevice, revealing the marvellous precision of the space between the walls. No work of art could be more regular. The sheer simplicity of the trap made it the more effectual. The sunlight showed, too, that the fissure was the skylight of a cave which opened out on the ravine. Dry boulders were strewn about fifty feet below, while ahead I could catch a glimpse of a narrow ribbon of blue sea. This provoking sight of unattainable water aggravated thirst almost beyond endurance. Throughout the night had my longing increased, but now the pangs were extreme. The most gratifying of all drinks—cool, fern-filtered, flower-decorated water, water dripping in iridescent spangles from green moss soft as velvet—splashed incessantly into a hollow out there a few yards away in the free space of the mountain. Here, manacled with "adamant eterne," in an agony of impatience I quaffed the thirst-stimulating draught of unsatisfied longing as I strove fitfully to wear away the stubborn strips of leather which held me in bondage. In a doze or dream the action went on. Startled, I awoke to find myself pommelling with inane savagery the poor crumpled body of the wallaby, and to the realisation that the imprisoned foot was loose in the boot.
A luxurious stupor took possession of my mind. I was at liberty to work out of the crevice knees and shoulders; yet an impalpable force detained me. It was not that I was not master of my fate, but that out there in the glare of the sun was patient water, dripping for the refreshment and cleansing of my grimy lips. So enchanting a thought was not to be abruptly ended. Was it not deliciously dreamy to hold myself in suspense awhile, to linger over anticipated sweetness and prolong blest gratifications indefinitely?
Strange drowsiness and peace bewitched the sunlit chink. Why should I struggle more? Could I not, in fancy, hearken to the measured splash of the drops from the sodden moss? Could anything be more consoling than this cushion to my bruised and aching arms? Ease and sloth were sweet indeed. I was free, but not at large. The amazing adaptability of the human mind had reconciled me in a few suffering hours to this confined space. Verily do I believe that the overcoming of this subtle anodyne demanded the expenditure of more vital force than the sum of all the long-sustained automatic exertion by which I had won physical release.
One supreme mental tug and the baneful torpor was dispelled, and with stiffened legs and bruised hand@ I began to screw myself up to the free air cautiously and painfully; and there, in a beam of light from the crystal, was the slow-dripping flower-bedizened water-celestial nectar to parched lips.
Hours after I awoke as from a dream. Far below a column of smoke showed that Wylo still watched. My first act was to send up a responsive signal. In a fit of petty passion I flung the toil-worn boot into the ravine, and began the descent by way of the spur to the west.
Wylo seemed scared by the sight of the staggering and tattered scarecrow, barefooted, and stained with blood and dirt, who stumbled into the camp at dusk, too weary to talk, almost too spent to eat; and to this day he is convinced that I was actually detained by the "debil-debil," whom I had overcome by some means of which wonder-working white men alone have the secret.
After two days' rest I climbed the mountain again, blocked the fissure with loose stones, and built a buttress, standing upon which I tapped the crystal gently with the tomahawk. It quivered. A shaft of rainbow tints dazzled my sight. I tapped again. As I touched it it third time, the fragile finger with which the gaunt old rock had scorned the plodding centuries vanished in a splutter of spangles!
THE SOUL WITHIN THE STONE
"These ghosts of the living and of the dead assuredly illustrate in a striking manner the mysterious workings of the human mind, and the unsuspected influence of soul on soul."—PRODMORE.
Not more than a hundred yards from its mud-besmeared mouth the convenient mangroves disappear and the little creek assumes becoming airs. Huge tea-trees, with cushiony bark, straddle it, and ferns grow strongly in all its nooks and bends. When the big trees blossom in watery yellow, yellow-eared honey-eaters, blue-bibbed sun-birds, and screeching parrots in accordant colours, assemble joyously, for the aroma, as of burnt honey, spreads far and wide, bidding all, butterflies and jewel-backed beetles which buzz and hum, to the feast, until the aerial anthem is harmonic to the rustle of the sea.
The sturdy feet of the trees stand in black peat, through which the water from the wholesome hills oozes and dribbles, and the russet stain from discarded leaves is on their white bases. Russet, too, is the surface of the ever moist soil. Some element in the water derived from pacted roots of palm and fern tinctures whatsoever in it lies, so that the bottoms of the shallow, erratic pools are thick with russet slime. All above is bright and pure, and the water which flows over the slime-smudged roots limpid and refreshing. If you cut into the bark of the tea-tree you will find water in beads and trickles, water which sparkles with purity and has a slightly saline taste. The bare roots alone suffer defilement.
Many a tall tea-tree stands sentinel on the margin of the creek, and there are groves of slim palms with narrow truncated leaves—palms which creep and sprawl over vegetation of independent character, and palm& which coquette with the sun with huge fans. Orchid& display sprays of yellowish-green flowers, which contribute a decided savour to the medley of scents, and palm-like Cycads meander from the low bank out Into the forest.
But there is one tree which, if not superior to the rest in broadness of base, height, fairness of bark, and fullness of bloom, has especial endowment. It stands at the spot where generation after generation of the original owners of the soil has crossed the creek, wearing a waving path upon which ferns ever encroach and which every flood amends. In a recess in its massive roots reposes "Kidjo-bang," the restless stone—a boulder, man's-head size, stained with a rim of sober brown.
This is its accustomed scat. It roves the locality, returning, swallow-like, to the close-fitting hollow of the root. The embraces of the root are sometimes so strong that the dingy stone may not be moved. But the floods of the wet season maintain an unceasing cataract to its dislodgment, and then, according to the legends of the blacks, it begins to "walk about." It may rest a month just out of reach of the disturbing water among the ferns. It has been known to appear mysteriously on the sandy beach two hundred yards away, to which spot it is said to travel by way of the grass lands, avoiding the slur of the muddy creek.
Whether it seeks change of scene beyond the ripple of dead leaves and spoil of the flood, or whether it ventures out on to the open beach, where the breezes from the Pacific play upon it, the round white stone returns, independent of the agency of man, to the sanctuary which time, ever-flowing water, and the hospitable roots of the tree, have combined to afford. It is there this day. Should it be taken to one or other of the blue islands in the broad bay, sooner or later it will be discovered nestling cosily in the grotto in which the dyed slime smears it as with pale blood.
To the ordinary investigator of the whimsicalities of "Kidj-o-bang" the blacks betray no secret, though they would verify, with what to them is proof positive, that it does on occasion appear in unexpected places and unaccountably reoccupies its cell. Discreetly pursue the subject and peradventure you may be told precisely why the stone may not always rest in the one spot in the whole world which it fits as a kernel its shell. It has been, they assert, associated with an evil deed of which it is now the emblem. Among the many the mysteries of "Kidj-o-bang" dwell with the past, though it is still associated with the ceremonies of the bestowal of totemic names on the children of a certain father.
More than one legend concerning it is extant, and the young fellows of the present day frankly scoff at them all, while the old men believe each other's versions and repeat them with bated breath. They cannot discredit stories which were accepted as established facts when they were young, which no one then ever dreamed of doubting, and which provide a comfortably satisfactory account for otherwise perplexing incidents.
Musing on the spot, the legend of the roving stone usurped my thoughts. The trivial and uncertain notions of the black boy who was the first to tell it, and by theatrical gestures to illustrate its verities, became more and more indistinct. The soothsayers of the long past had been forbidden by Nature to doubt that which was the lore of the camp. Was it that Nature re-asserted her influence—that the essences of the scene, subtle and pervasive, had recurred, creating a receptive spirit, so deep a religion of assent that shadow and substance intermingled to my bewilderment? I was permitted to be a sensitive percipient in the midst of the ashes of shiftless folk who had passed away, catching but a casual and deceptive glimpse of the coming of the desolating white man.
Piln-goi, the black boy, had wandered up the creek. A thrilling silence prevailed. Stooping down, I laved my hands in the softly flowing water, idly intent on lifting the stone. The tawny slime defeated irresolute efforts, and my slipping hands bestowed a baptismal splash.
Instantly I became conscious of a strange presence, and, glancing over my shoulder, saw an unfamiliar black boy lurking behind a glistening-fronded Cycad.
The whole scene had undergone wishful transformation. The white-barked trees, purified of smears from the sooty fingers of fire, stood out in splendid contrast to a richer, thicker, a flowery undergrowth. Tall fern trees spread green cobwebs to entrap sunbeams. The Cycad under which the boy crouched was slim-shaped, and its foliage resembled that of one of the most beautiful of ferns, with languorous, dolorous fronds, while it was crowned with a huge fruit of golden-brown. All the scene had been wondrously transfigured. Time's treacheries had been defeated. A garden-like age had been restored. The sword-leaved orchid dangled yard-long sprays of brilliant yellow flowers, which saturated the air with delicate perfume. Fearless birds fluttered among and hovered over the pendant blooms, whistling and calling. Water-rats sported in the lily-bespangled stream, and a platypus basked, on the bank.
From the strained and expectant attitude of the boy, it was apparent that he was hunting. He stepped cautiously out of cover, and, using a wommera of dark wood with oval clutches of white shell, threw a spear into the long grass. A kangaroo, mad with fear and pain, staggered forward, knowing not whence fate had struck it, and, lurching helplessly, sank among the ferns on the margin of the water. Ignoring my presence the boy, having completed the hunter's office with a blow from a nulla-nulla, called in a thin, shrill voice:
"Yano-lee!" (We go this way).
In a few seconds a young girl of his own race stepped through the leafy screen. She cast casual glances at the dead kangaroo, and without saying a word to her companion came to the pool, stooped down beside me, and drank eagerly and noisily, using a scoop improvised from a leaf. Her back glistened with perspiration, and her coarse, fuzzy, uncleanly hair ceased in tufts on her neck. It was a slim and shapely little figure. The plumes of the orchid, golden and syrupy, swayed over her heedless head and seemed to caress it. Her eyes, round, large, and brimful of the bewildering eagerness of youth, relieved the unobtrusive expansiveness of her nose and almost atoned for her savage lips. Though almost touching me, the most shy, wild creature of the bush seemed unconscious of my presence. She was in fact and deed:
"We have the receipt of fern-seed; we walk invisible." I was the phantom—invisible, intangible. The pair beside, the unembarrassed realities.
Do phantoms reflect? That privilege was mine. Let memory treasure every detail of the scene, every vestige of its incidents.
"Kidj-o-bang" had vanished. There was its cell. A full and stainless stream, in a gurgling cataract, sparkled over the big root, while high among the blossoms birds clambered incessantly for nectar.
The primitive pair were at home, but not at case, In this Garden of Eden. They spoke in mumbling tones, of which I could catch but stray phrases, though I listened eagerly. Presently the girl took up two dry sticks, and, using one as a drill between the palms of her hands, essayed to make a fire.
The boy imperatively intervened. "Poo-nee imba!" (No fire).
The girl started up, and instantly both slid into the jungle as silently and as tracklessly as snakes.
The dead kangaroo, the expectant phantom (gifted for the time being with a faculty more subtle than any moral sense), remained alone among the birds and the orchids, while shy pencil-tailed water-rats began to sniff and peer among the sedges. So enthralling was the scene that time passed insensibly. The sun was overhead when the pair reappeared noiselessly. Smears of shell and grit betrayed an intervening meal of oysters. Swarms of green ants, in a scramble for food, almost obscured the blood-stains on the fur of the kangaroo, and, brushing them away, the boy made and enlarged with his fingers an opening in the body, and having torn out the heart, liver, and kidneys, made a fire, scarce a hand's-breadth wide and smokeless, on which the meat was singed prior to being munched with grim deliberation. They ate largely, some of the flesh from the hind quarters being also eaten, scrap by scrap.
Were they fugitives? Tall and strong, the boy was as alert and suspicious as a dingo. Every sense was strained. He seemed intent upon subduing the very noises in his head as he slowly crushed his food and gulped.
A forlorn cry, half appeal, half gurgle, filtered through the leafage as from the beach, and on the instant the jungle had soundlessly absorbed the affrighted pair. The handful of fire and the mutilated kangaroo remained as the only evidences of the handiwork of man.
What of the intruder? The cry was almost too weird to be human. Again it thrilled through the leafage, a trifle stronger, and seemed to convey a threat commingled with a prayer for succour.
The scene held me. I was powerless, but not indifferent; capable of sight, incapable of action or utterance. Something in the tone of the voice told of a member of my own race in sore distress. Yet I could not respond to his appeal or move to his aid.
Half an hour of intense silence passed, and then a lusty shout startled the air. Surely, I thought, the wayfarer who makes such outcry in this unpeopled wilderness is an uncouth fellow who has lost his way and thinks to dialogue with echoes for relief of loneliness. Presently the cracking of branchlets and a rumble of discontented phrases told of someone blundering along through the mangroves. Accustomed to the gentle sounds and the delicious silence of the jungle, the clumsy noises irritated while preparing me for the sight of the intruder—a big, aggressive, weather-scored man, his only clothing a pair of short pants of canvas, stained with wear and stiff and whitened with frost like sea-salt. The ocean had but an hour ago cast him like its scum on the beach.
He burst on the scene to plunge his broken lips into the water at my feet. Like the natives, he drank long and noisily, and when his thirst was allayed called to an imaginary mate—"Pietro, Pietro!" cursed freely when no answer came, and whimpered like a babe.
Huge of body, strong of limb, bully and brute stamped on his coarse features, yet did his dread of loneliness piteously overcome him. His bald pate, hung about with scant reddish ringlets, had been roasted by the tropic sun until it glowed, and eyes and nose strove for supremacy of inflammation. An unkempt moustache did not hide teeth of disreputable tint; chin and jowl were covered with a fortnight's growth of streaky hair.
Turning from the water, he saw the dismembered kangaroo, and, seizing one of the legs, tore the flesh from the bones and with ravenous greed began an uncleanly feast. The impure drank of the pure water and gulped the strong flesh until his gorged stomach swelled cask-shape, and then he slept as noisily as he had eaten and drank.
A leathern belt, cracked and whitened, furrowed his distended girth, and as he lay stretched with the sun scrutinising his face, flies and mosquitoes and carnivorous green ants feasted on his blood at will. Each leaden-tinted, lean fly revelled until it assumed similitude to a colouring grape, some "reeled to and fro and staggered like drunken men"; bloated mosquitoes and green ants, commingling, made a living mosaic on the skin of the unconscious man. What could the assaults and stings of myriads of insects avail against fatigue so formidable?
But a decree had gone forth that the sleeper should wake, and who is man that he should flout imperious commands? The merciless sun insisted. The strong man fidgeted under the persistent blaze. Perspiration poured from his skin; he snarled; his eyelids twitched and quivered; the veins of neck and forehead throbbed ominously. The sun does not tolerate disobedience. A thin trickle of blood issued from the grimy nose, and with a snort the man awoke, his flame-red eye% swilled with enforced tears. Dazedly he plunged his head into the water and drank greedily, and, sitting up, spat sullenly and with signs of disgust and contempt. What comfort could cold water afford so repleted a stomach?
Having disdainfully spurned the remnants of the kangaroo, he sat head between knees, grumbling against fate. To him the fruitful and pleasant land was disconsolate. A castaway, he had drifted on to its welcome shores, and all that it could offer was loneliness, cold water, the raw flesh of a strange animal, and denial of the solace of sleep. Out of the depths of his misery and dejection he called imperatively on his God, and taking from the lining of his belt a thumb-sized purse, of netted silver, displayed a glorious pearl, which he held aloft, and with an admixture of supplication and imprecation proffered it to the Most High as grudging ransom from a God-abandoned country.
Who is there that delights not in the susceptible purity of pearls? The gem which symbolises virginal placidity was like to be contaminated by the coarse handling of the fretful, bargaining castaway.
Did I lean forward acquisitively to accept it from the noisome fingers, reluctant that so serene a prize should be retained in so coarse a setting?
The man started, for the votive offering had vanished, and blasphemous lamentations and curses against the Supreme Being, whom he abused for defrauding him of fortune by trickery, shocked the quietude. Then a spasm of religious fervour jerked him to his knees as he patronised the Almighty for having accepted a pledge for safe-conduct from death-like solitude. After transports of impious piety, as uncouth and boisterous as his struggles through the labyrinth of mangroves to the purifying water, he sat bareheaded in the sun.
Steamy heat distilled strong aromatic odours from the myriad leaves; languid flowers gave copiously and of the best of their fragrance; ferns and lotus did obeisance to high noon. The birds had ceased to whistle, and the droning of bees gave to the upper air slumbering rhythm of its own.
Again the intruder slept. Again the sun commanded and he woke raging. Standing, he cursed both loud and long, eyes protuberant, face purpling under the strain of vindictive oaths.
What an unflattering contrast to the unclad natives who had dominated yet blended with the scene-the girl the prototype of a swaying palm, the boy that of a tough young bloodwood beside the creek, among the topmost branches of which a crimson-flowered mistletoe made a splash of colour in harmony with the single red feather from the wing of a black cockatoo which the soft-tongued youth had entangled in his hair.
This gross, profane, sun-smitten, sea-rejected herald of civilisation, disowned by his fellows, disinherited of the world, defiled the spot, and his voice created an inaugural discord.
With arms uplifted, he muttered ineffectual curses against his fellows, upbraided his saints, and defied his deity. But while his lips frothed with the passion of a stuttering tongue, the provoked but just genius of the spot passed sentence, and swiftly and silently the messengers of Death came. Four slender spear& penetrated his shaggy chest, as with a &cream which ended lit a gulp he splashed back into the water. His struggles and splutterings soon ceased. Silence resumed its fascination.
Blood welled from the mouth and nose and spear wounds, which the eager water carried off in wavy, independent streams, while the dead face whitened.
Many minutes elapsed before a dozen white-eyed natives cautiously oozed through the Jungle, stimulating each other's nervousness by reassuring gestures. Certain that the trespasser on their dominion was incapable of mischief, they began to chatter, showing fidgety interest in the body, which they touched and poked fearsomely with spears.
Dead eyes stared unblinkingly at the sun through a curtain of water, which had already cleaned them of heat and passion, and wisps of red hair drifted over the forehead.
The untimely yelp of a dingo some few yards in the jungle inspired a similar response from one of the men, and without shyness or reserve the boy and girl joined the throng, and all began to talk excitedly. Some of the men assumed threatening attitudes towards the girl, who stood submissively, while the boy talked in a rage of excitement. He had chosen his mate, and would not, even on pain of summary death, abandon her.
So trivial an incident as the love affairs of boy and girl could not compare with the phenomenon in the water. The crisis was momentary. Amazement was pictured in every face, and not a man but subjected the bleeding body to gross contempt and what passed among them for ridicule. They mimicked the high stomach as they stood, as the dead man had stood, with arms aloft in rebellion against his lot, and fell back, as he had fallen, screaming, to kick and wallow on the ground. Here was plot and matter for ludicrous corroboree, the first rehearsal of which took place on the scene.
Soon curiosity took possession of the unstable actors. The belt was removed, and on the purse being fumbled with, several small pearls fell out. They were disregarded; but the strong man of the party looped the belt about his own inadequate waist, the girl hid the purse (which had been passed from hand to hand) in her hair, while the men tore the bone buttons from the pants and fitted them into their ears as they strutted foppishly.
The dead eyes stared defiantly up into the sky, the face whitened, and the stains of blood seemed to settle on it.
A harsh sound came as an electric shock, and I heard as from afar off Piln-goi shout:
"You bin sleep long time, boss! Big low water. We fella look out pearl-shell!"
The scene had resumed everyday aspects. The sun concentrated its rays on my head through a rift in the jungle, and the stone, stained dull red, lay in its cell, while rootlets fringed with tawny slime wavered over it.
Had soul communed with soul on that illusive borderland we range in dreams, the emblem of a deed of blood eloquent to reveal its secret? And now that the tale is told, will it cease from bewildering the simple old men of the soil who with one hand grapple the magical past and with the other the realities of the present?
Piln-goi's impatience drew me from the spot and out on to the reef laid bare by the ebb. The beguiling pearl still eludes him, but memory holds a rarer treasure than all the fecund sea contains.